Part of the challenge for the NHL and its players as they embark on an ambitious new plan for the World Cup of Hockey is to acknowledge the tournament's significant past without letting the past bury the tournament's future.
The tournament, which began as the Canada Cup tournament in the aftermath of the revolutionary eight-game Summit Series in 1972, pitting the best Canadian players against the best players from Russia, has included some defining moments in international hockey.
Here's a list of the five greatest Canada Cup/World Cup of Hockey teams.
1. Canada, 1987 Canada Cup
The 1987 final between Canada and Russia is widely considered the greatest hockey competition ever. And why not? All three games in the best-of-three finals finished 6-5, and the first two went to overtime (Game 2 went to double overtime). Canada won it on one of the most storied goals in hockey history, Mario Lemieux ripping home a sweet drop pass from Wayne Gretzky with 1:26 left in the third period to break a 5-5 tie.
This Canadian team was an interesting blend of pure offensive skill, as reflected by a young Lemieux and a cadre of Edmonton Oilers stars led by Gretzky and future Hall of Famers Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and Mark Messier; and good old-fashioned Canadian grit and scrappiness as illustrated by the presence of players such as Rick Tocchet, Kevin Dineen, Brent Sutter, Claude Lemieux and Doug Gilmour. No surprise given the management team was 1972 series alumnus Serge Savard, Phil Esposito and Bobby Clarke, who were in charge of selecting the team along with Oilers coach and general manager Glen Sather. Philadelphia Flyers head coach Mike Keenan was behind the bench.
But this team will forever be known for the rare moment of hockey bliss that came with Gretzky and Lemieux sharing the same stage, wearing the same jersey. Lemieux, who scored the double-overtime winner in Game 2 to force a third and deciding game in the finals, collected 18 points in nine games, including 11 goals (four of which were game-winners). Incredible, no? Almost as incredible as Gretzky's performance, as The Great One tallied three goals and 18 assists in nine games. Never mind the best of Canada Cup/World Cup of Hockey, this might have been the greatest team assembled anywhere, anytime.
2. Russia, 1987 Canada Cup
You knew this was coming, didn't you? What made this series so dramatic, so compelling, was the fact that as fine a team as the Canadians were, the Russians matched them step for step. This was a coming-out party for Sergei Makarov, who led the Russians with 15 points. Igor Larionov, bound for the Hall of Fame, was hampered by injury but was still a presence as a key member of the famed Green Line or KLM Line. Slava Fetisov anchored the blue line along with Alexei Kasatonov, two years before Fetisov would join the NHL with the New Jersey Devils en route, ultimately, to the Detroit Red Wings and their famed Russian Five group and the Hall of Fame. Valeri Kamensky enjoyed a breakout tournament, scoring six goals, a precursor to a stellar NHL career that spanned more than 600 games.
Though this competition lacked the cultural/political backdrop that was such a key part of the lore of the Summit Series 15 years earlier, this was still a battle for hockey supremacy. The Russians were still searching for a replacement for legendary goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, who had retired, and they caught lightning in a bottle with netminder Sergei Mylnikov taking over as the Russian starter and going 5-1. This was an important tournament for Russian coach Viktor Tikhonov, who had been synonymous with the Russian work ethic and had a devotion to systems, which made the Big Red Machine a global hockey power for years, although his teams had struggled against North American NHL talent.
Even though the Russians fell short, blowing a 3-0 first-period lead in Game 3, this was a series full of lead changes and emotional swings, and this Soviet team is full value for its status as one of the greatest teams of all time.
3. United States, 1996 World Cup of Hockey
This was the first of what turned out to be just two World Cup of Hockey ventures leading into next year's event, coming five years after the final Canada Cup tournament, in 1991. It would prove to be a benchmark tournament for USA Hockey as they squared off against a fearsome Canadian team in the best-of-three finals and emerged victorious.
Canada was again the heavy favorite, led by captain Gretzky and familiar friends Messier and Coffey. The Canadian roster also featured players who would grow into iconic players, both internationally and in the NHL, such as Eric Lindros, Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Adam Graves, Keith Primeau and Rod Brind'Amour. The Canadian defense included future Hall of Famers Scott Stevens, Rob Blake and Scott Niedermayer. In goal, Curtis Joseph, Martin Brodeur and Bill Ranford were all formidable.
And yet the Americans were at a stage in their national development where they could match Canada in skill, grit and depth. Team USA was led by head coach Ron Wilson, who famously challenged his team to stop being content sitting at the back of the hockey bus. All the players rose to the challenge, such as Brett Hull, who led the tournament with 11 points, including seven goals in seven games; John LeClair (10 points); Keith Tkachuk (five goals); Tony Amonte, two game-winning goals; and Brian Leetch, seven assists.
The hungry Americans crushed Russia, 5-2, thanks to another strong performance by Pat LaFontaine, who had struggled with injury in the tournament, to advance to the finals and then, after dropping the first game in overtime, whipped Canada by twin 5-2 scores to solidify their place in U.S. hockey lore and provided an inspiration to a new generation of American fans.
4. Canada, 1976 Canada Cup
This was the first edition of what for many years would be considered the ultimate hockey competition, featuring the best players from around the world. And it would mark a special time for Canadian fans, who did not get a chance to see either Bobby Orr (injured) or Bobby Hull (barred because he was playing in the World Hockey Association) in the 1972 Summit Series.
Neither disappointed in their first-ever Canada Cup appearance as the Canadians defeated Czechoslovakia in two straight games in the finals. Orr tied for the team and tournament lead with nine points in seven games and was a force in Canada's win-or-go-home victory over Russia that sent them to the finals. In his only international tournament appearance for Canada, Orr was named MVP even though the brilliant defenseman is often described as having played the tournament on one leg, as his knee was so banged up. He would go on to play just 26 more games with the Chicago Blackhawks as his career was sadly cut short by chronic knee injuries. Hull, still with Winnipeg of the WHA but named to Canada's roster, paced Canada with five goals -- three of which were game-winners.
Of course "The Goal" of the tournament was scored by Toronto Maple Leafs favorite Darryl Sittler, who avenged an earlier 1-0 defeat in the round-robin by sweeping past star Czechoslovak netminder Vladimir Dzurilla to score the overtime tournament clincher. The win came after Marian Stastny, one half of the famous brother duo who would later defect to North America, had given Czechoslovakia a 4-3 lead late in the third. But Bill Barber tied the game, setting the stage for Sittler's heroics just past the midway point of the first overtime period.
5. Canada, 2004 World Cup of Hockey
We admit there was much about the previous World Cup of Hockey, 11 years ago, that left us cold. Fans, especially in the United States, seemed uninterested in the event. Team USA was in transition, and their performance was notable mostly for the fact head coach Ron Wilson had to bench Brett Hull. And the tournament played out against the backdrop of the looming labor stoppage that would ultimately scuttle the entire 2004-05 season. In short, the entire affair was a bit of a downer.
But let us give the Canadians their due as they followed up a seminal Olympic gold medal in Salt Lake City two years earlier with another dominating performance. The tournament marked a final international turn for Mario Lemieux; the Penguins great would play in only 26 more NHL games after this tournament.
If Lemieux (five points in six games) represented the old Canadian guard, the team's leading scorer and tournament MVP Vincent Lecavalier represented the new generation of Canadian stars as he stepped to the fore after being a late add to the team in place of an injured Steve Yzerman. Two months after winning a Stanley Cup in Tampa, Lecavalier and teammates Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis would lead Canada to an undefeated record while capturing the tournament trophy.
This was a deep, balanced team assembled by executive director Gretzky and, while Colorado captain Joe Sakic would lead the team with four goals in six games, 13 Canadian players scored at least one goal in the tournament as they outscored opponents 22-8.
For us, this tournament will always be remembered not for the 3-2 victory over Finland in the final, but for Canada's dramatic overtime victory over the Czech Republic in the semifinals in a game that rightly deserves the label "classic." That game featured a surprise start by goaltender Roberto Luongo in place of an ailing Martin Brodeur, and Luongo stood tall, stopping all five Czech shots in overtime before Lecavalier scored the winner.